You should always name your price first.

You should always name your price first.

You should always name your price first

Imagine you are in a market in China and see something you like. You ask what the price is and the lady gives you a figure which seems a little steep to you. In a market, you can be sure the price she has told you is way over what she would actually accept, but how do you know how much she has added? In a nutshell, unless you are an expert, you don’t.

Because you are unlikely to be an expert, you have to base your offer on your estimate of how much she has inflated the true cost. Remember the last article, about how we are all influenced by numbers? That is what is happening now, in the market. You may assume that the lady has doubled the true value, hoping to get some extra, so you halve it to make your offer. Now you start haggling and arrive somewhere in between.

The trouble is, there is a good chance she tripled or even quadrupled the amount she would actually accept. In that case, you would have agreed to a price well over the actual value.

The only way of avoiding your first offer being so influenced by hers is to make your offer first. Decide what you are willing to pay for something, cut it in half (or a third even) and offer that.

She is a wily street trader. Her livelihood is based on her ability to haggle and she does it all day every day, so your chances of besting her are not good. However, at least you haven’t been stymied at the beginning by succumbing to her outrageously high anchor price.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Judges should not play with dice

Judges should not play with dice

Judges, if they were allowed to play with dice, could be influenced by those dice when deciding on prison terms. I will explain how, but first I want to ask you a question:

Do you think there are more or fewer than 15 countries in Africa? Think about it for a moment. More than 15 countries in Africa or fewer?

Having considered that, now take a guess at how many countries there are.

There are actually five times eleven countries in Africa (if you include Western Sahara, which actually is not yet recognised by the UN). I have not written the number properly because I didn’t want you to see it by mistake before making your guess. I’m hoping that your maths will get you there.

I expect most people reading this will have guessed a number considerably under 55. Maybe 30 or 40. They were probably influenced by my asking if there were more or fewer than 15.

When having to make an estimate of any sort of quantity, people have a ballpark range within which they would expect the answer to be. When I asked about the number 15, you will probably have decided that it was too low. However, when you were subsequently asked to make an estimate, you probably went up from 15 until you reached the bottom of the ballpark range. If I had asked about the number 100 you would have come down from 100 until you reached the top of the ballpark range.

Your estimate of the number of countries in Africa, then, was almost certainly influenced by the number I proposed, even though it was clearly wrong. This initial figure, which so influenced you, is known as an anchor. Anchors are incredibly pervasive and their influence can be seen everywhere that figures are invented, guessed or debated.

Englich, Mussweiler and Strack showed that even experienced judges could be influenced in this way when deciding on prison sentences for criminals. The judges rolled dice first and considered whether the number rolled was too high or too low for the number of months a prisoner should serve. Then they decided how many months to actually sentence someone to. Those who rolled a three recommended an average of about five months; those who rolled a nine recommended about 8 months!

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Being stoned does not necessarily make you a bad eyewitness

Being stoned does not necessarily make you a bad eyewitness

Being stoned does not necessarily make you a bad eyewitness.

A recent study by Vredeveldt et al has shown that witnesses to a crime could pick the thief out of a line up just as well if they had been smoking marijuana as if they had not.

Participants were asked, either before or after consuming marijuana in a coffee shop in Amsterdam, to watch a video of a robbery. Then, after a short interval, they had to describe what they had seen, and try to say whether the robber was in present in a police lineup.

The more stoned participants were not so good at giving details of the crime generally, which might make them less well believed by judges and juries. However, they were as good as sober participants at identifying whether the thief was in the lineup or not. Curiously, the intoxicated ones were more likely to be correct if they were confident than the sober ones were if they were confident.

This is only one study, and it is not perfect. For example, the people were presumably all consumers of marijuana generally as they were going into a coffee shop which expressly offers this service. Some of the participants who were deemed sober because they were going in may therefore already have partaken somewhere else; or there may be an overall long term effect of the marijuana which would have affected all participants.

And the list of possible flaws goes on. However, from this study, it appears that being high on dope doesn’t necessarily affect your natural recognition abilities. As cannabis is made legal in more and more places around the world, it is important that studies are undertaken to discover the effects and implications this will have on society.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

You are useless at statistics.

You are useless at statistics.

You are useless at statistics. Yup. Useless. Intuitively, I mean. You may well be able to sit down and work out the actual objective chances that something will happen, but that is not how the brain naturally works. Your brain works in stories and pictures, not complicated mathematics.

If you watch somebody tossing a coin repeatedly you expect a random sequence of heads and tails. If they get several heads in a row, you feel the next one is more likely to be tails. Of course, the next one is still just as likely to be heads as tails, but that isn’t how it feels. And as the run of heads grows longer, your feeling that the next has to be tails grows stronger. But it is still 50/50.

You know, intellectually, that it is still a 50/50 proposition, but that doesn’t stop your brain crying out that the next one simply has to be tails.

Similarly, consider the following statement: among stockbrokers almost half of all sick days taken are on either a Friday or a Monday.

You may jump to the conclusion that some stockbrokers are trying to extend their weekends. You might come up with some justification that less trading is done on a Friday as the working week winds down, or on a Monday as people are slow to get going after the weekend. Or they want to go away for a long weekend sometimes, and can’t get the leave.

Actually, I made the statement up. I have no idea of the break down of sick days among stockbrokers, or any other occupation. However, I would expect almost half of stockbrokers’ sick days to be either a Friday or a Monday. Not because of anything to do with stockbrokers or the weekend. I would expect it simply because Friday and Monday together make up two fifths of the working week, which is nearly half.

Our brains though, when hearing a statement like that one, don’t automatically think of statistics. Our brains love stories, so we try to come up with reasons to explain the apparent anomaly.

Those examples were easy to explain with very simple statistics and just a little thought, but how many times are we shocked by some similar claim in the news? It is very possible that much of what we are surprised by is simply because of the way we heard the information, and that statistics would show that it is nothing that should be unexpected.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

A smile won’t make you happier if you are being watched

A smile won’t make you happier if you are being watched

In the last post I mentioned the feedback your brain receives when you smile. Effectively, it thinks, “Hmm. I’m smiling; I must be happy”, and you actually become happier. This was shown in a famous study by Fritz Strack in 1988.

However, attempts to replicate this experiment were not always successful. Some worked and some didn’t, resulting in an overall lack of proof of the effect.

Recently Noah et al conducted more research into why some of those attempted replications were successful and not the others. One theory had been that the ones that were not successful had the participants being filmed, and the others did not. So they conducted the experiment again, splitting the conditions into those being overtly videoed and those not being overtly videoed.

Sure enough, when people were not being videoed they were happier when being made to smile (by holding their pen between their teeth, forcing the mouth into a sort of grimace!). When they knew they were being videoed, though, there was no such effect. It appears that knowing you are being watched makes you think about how you look. You “adopt an external perspective” of yourself and are more likely to ignore internal stimuli and feedback.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

If you smile you will feel happier.

If you smile you will feel happier.

If you smile you will feel happier.

We think of our facial expressions and body language as being caused by our feelings and attitudes. However, it goes the other way too. If you smile, that tells your brain that you must be happy.

Fritz Strack asked his participants to either hold a pen horizontally between their teeth (creating a sort of smile – or a grimace at least!) or pointing out from their pursed lips (creating a sort of frown). Those who held the pen between their teeth reported feeling happier than the others.

The same effect works with other body language too. If you nod your head, that tells your brain that you agree with whatever you are listening to. And if your brain thinks you are agreeing, it will alter your beliefs or attitudes accordingly.

Wells and Petty asked some participants to nod whilst they listened to a message on some headphones. Others were asked to shake their heads.

Those who had been nodding ended up agreeing with the message they were listening to than those who had been asked to shake their heads.

If the message was something that the participants already had an opinion about, there was another interesting effect. If they disagreed with the message they found it harder to nod their heads. And, naturally, if they agreed with the message people found it harder to shake their heads.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Token Gestures Can Lead to Big Changes in Behaviour

Token Gestures Can Lead to Big Changes in Behaviour

Token gestures can lead to big changes in behaviour

If we show some small commitment to a point of view, it can greatly influence our future behaviour and opinions. This is why marketers hold competitions where you are encouraged to state why you like a particular product. That small sign of commitment (even if you don’t like the product and are making it up) works to influence your opinion. You don’t like to appear inconsistent so you behave in accordance with your expressed view. That is, you are more likely to buy the product.

Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser, in 1966, asked people in California to put a large billboard in their garden promoting safe driving. Very few agreed. Others were asked to put a small, unobtrusive card in their window with the same message. Almost all agreed because it was so small. However, when these people were subsequently asked to put a large billboard in their garden, 75% agreed.

Agreeing to the small card in the window showed a commitment by those people to encouraging safe driving. It also made them feel that they were civic-minded people who do what they can to aid safety. Therefore, when asked about the billboard, it was much harder for them to say no. Saying no would go against what they had demonstrated their commitment to, and would go against what was now their belief that they were civic minded people.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Are Christiano Ronaldo and Brett Cavanaugh both Sex Criminals?

Are Christiano Ronaldo and Brett Cavanaugh both Sex Criminals?

Are Brett Cavanaugh and Christiano Ronaldo both guilty of sexual assault?

As I write this there are two high profile charges of sexual assault in the news. But can we believe them?

In questioning their guilt, some may say I am disrespecting their accusers, who have apparently been through a horrific ordeal. And some may say I am helping mud to stick just by writing about it. I mean no disrespect and I hope that I do not help any mud to stick to an innocent person.

Clearly, I have no idea if the two men in question are guilty or not. The reason I am writing this is that my research has shown me just how unreliable our memories are. Just because a person believes someone assaulted them ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago, does not mean it happened the way they remember it.

Study after study has shown that details are extremely easy to implant into someone’s memory of an event. And once that detail has been put in, the person can remember it no other way. A simple example is asking people if a car stopped before or after the tree in a video they watched. There was no tree, but many people, upon being asked that question, would unwittingly implant one into their memories. They cannot then remove the tree if someone just tells them it wasn’t there. They now see it in their memory as clearly as any genuine detail.

We are unable to remember how we used to recall something, as opposed to how we recall it now. So implanted details become as real as genuine ones.

I can imagine a situation where someone (like Ronaldo’s accuser) is raped. They go to the police, but cannot give firm enough details for the police to proceed with any real investigation. Years later someone suggests to this poor lady that the rapist may have been Ronaldo. She is shown pictures of Ronaldo and encouraged to “remember” that it was indeed him. The more she is encouraged and coached, the more clearly she remembers each detail. Indeed, her memory may change dramatically, with time (and perhaps the input of others), without her being aware that it has changed at all.

Many people end up believing they were sexually assaulted as children when they were not, because of terribly misinformed and damaging “therapy”. It is known that if someone is asked to imagine what it would have been like if they had experienced something (let’s say a balloon ride), they are far more likely to misremember actually experiencing that thing even though it never happened. And each time they “recall” it they recall more detail more clearly. Eventually, if they are encouraged to remember the incident, the false memory becomes as clear, if not clearer, than any other memory.

It is overwhelmingly evident that the mind can create false memories, and that real memories can and do become distorted. As further proof of this, the majority of wrong convictions in court are a result of mistaken eyewitness testimony.

One would think that the longer ago an incident happened, the more chance there is for distortion of that memory. So should we believe the accusers of Brett Cavanaugh and Christiano Ronaldo?

I can believe that the accusers are sincere, and are not lying. But I would suggest that that is very different from actually believing their memories are accurate.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Fighting Your Prejudices Could Make Them Worse

Fighting Your Prejudices Could Make Them Worse

We all have prejudices. Stereotypes are a necessary part of our psychological make-up and prejudices are an unfortunate side effect of these. However, we are sentient beings who should be able to rise above these prejudices, see them for what they are, and act in a fair and unbiased manner. Right? Weeeell… sooooort of.

Imagine you are interviewing people for a job and you have in front of you a skinhead man with tattoos and piercings in places you didn’t even know were potential sites for such things. You may well hold a stereotype in your head that tells you people who look like that are aggressive anti-establishment types, which isn’t what you really require for the running of the local Conservative council.

Hang on, you tell yourself, I must not be biased and judgemental. I must not pander to my thoughts that skinheads are aggressive. I must not think that. In the short term that may work and this one lucky skinhead may get a fair hearing. What you are doing, however, is reminding yourself of your prejudice. It is like trying not to think of an elephant. It makes you think of one (this is called ironic process theory). Trying not to think of skinheads as aggressive may actually bring to mind memories from TV or film or real life when you did see skinheads being aggressive. And bringing those images to mind strengthens the stereotype.

So fighting against your prejudice may have, perversely, made it worse.

The good news is that repeatedly, consciously countering the negative stereotype does appear to get rid of it eventually. Unfortunately, however, we hold so many stereotypes, there is no way we could even know what they all are, let alone combat them all.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

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